“Between the Panels” is a bi-weekly interview series focusing on comic book creators of all experience levels, seeking to examine not just what each individual creates, but how they go about creating it.
If Rose Bousamra had followed one of the early career paths laid out before them — fashion or graphic design — the comics world would have missed out on a special voice that is about to make fans sit up and take notice. Storytelling skills honed creating personal art and webcomics will soon be on display in two upcoming graphic novels, one of which marks Rose’s debut as both artist and writer.
First off, the basics…
Your specialties (artist/writer/letterer/inker/etc.): Artist
Your home base: Michigan
Any other sites where you’re active: ko-fi.com/rosebousamra
Fanbase Press Contributor Kevin Sharp: Why comics? What attracts you to making comics specifically over other artforms?
Rose Bousamra: The power of storytelling gripped me from a young age, so when I realized all I had to do was draw picture after picture and put them together to make a story happen, I was hooked. As someone who often struggles with words but loves to tell stories with my art, it feels natural to create in this way for me. It’s such a unique art form because you can evoke so many different emotions in a myriad of different ways between the paneling, the balance of text and illustration, the colors and mood, and it’s all in your control.
KS: What kinds of titles made up your early comics reading?
RB: It started with manga for me, probably around age seven. CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth and Cardcaptor Sakura were my earliest memories, then moving on to more mature titles like Inuyasha and Fullmetal Alchemist. The only non-manga series that caught my attention was a great horror comic called Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things by Ted Naifeh. That, and any Spider-Man titles I could get my hands on!
KS: Where were you finding your manga at that time? Comic store, or library, or…?
RB: The big bookstores around me were just starting to stock manga in the early 2000s. I remember finding it for the first time among the other comics and graphic novels like some secret buried treasure.
KS: Do you remember how you first “met” Spider-Man? What appealed to you about that character in particular?
RB: I know this is really random, but it started with the N64 Spider-Man game. I loved his open personality and all his funny quips — he just seemed so much more accessible and humorous than other superheroes I’d encountered. After that I remember really enjoying the Ultimate Spider-Man comic series that was being released at the time. I think Peter Parker being a young kid still finding his way in the world and making lots of mistakes made him really endearing to me.
KS: Of those stories you were discovering back then, is there a particular one you remember really having an impact on you?
RB: Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa was the first story/series I read that I really obsessed over and stuck with for years. I was around 11-12 when I started reading it, and I remember how the intensely dark and serious themes were balanced by the hope and levity in the characters and their experiences. The storytelling is just fantastic and it still holds up to this day.
KS: Were there certain elements that clicked on that initial read?
RB: [I] went through a lot as a kid, and the protagonists start the story off by experiencing an incredible loss that they carry through the entire adventure. The strength and hope the characters manage to muster to keep going, the way they’re lifted up by others along their journey — I think that was important for me to read at the time and helped me work through a lot of feelings I didn’t know how to process on my own.
KS: Moving to you as an artist, what was the first “serious” art project you remember creating? Something that felt like a big deal for you at the time, whatever age that was.
RB: I didn’t have a lot of friends in middle school, but I loved showing my art to my teachers and classmates, and in those moments I was able to connect with people. For eighth grade graduation, one of my teachers asked me to design the cover of the pamphlet for the graduation ceremony, and I remember that as the first time I felt like I really had something special to offer. I drew a polar bear — our school mascot — in a tuxedo and everyone loved it and got to take one home! The little weirdo of the class got to feel like a celebrity for one day and it really meant a lot.
KS: Amazing. Do you still have the pamphlet anywhere?
RB: [T]hankfully, my family saves everything, so I was able to dig it up. You can tell it was a very elegant affair.
KS: How did the idea of art as a career path come to you? Was there an “a-ha” moment of inspiration you can pinpoint?
RB: I’ve been drawing ever since I can remember. My family was always supportive of my art and lauded my skills, but they didn’t always support a career in it. So, it took a very long time for me to consider it seriously as a career, but there was an “a-ha” period if that makes sense? I had just finished three years of a fashion design degree, because I thought that was something I could pour my artistic skills into while learning a more marketable trade, but I hated it. Luckily, my program took me to London, England, in 2013 where I happened to meet another artist named Jem Milton and they were the one who suggested comics as a career to me. Even then I was skeptical, but they really encouraged me and genuinely opened my eyes to what comics could be. They were the first person to show me comics could be whatever you wanted them to be, that you didn’t have to have any certain style or training to make them. That was what really inspired me to try, and once I did I couldn’t stop! They’re an incredible comic creator, and we’re still great friends to this day.
KS: Was your family more supportive of the fashion design choice? Maybe that seemed like a “safer” version of the artistic dream?
RB: Yeah, that was among their suggestions at the time, along with graphic design. I do remember looking at a bachelor’s program in illustration at a prestigious art school in my area, but as soon as we saw the cost, it was instantly a no-go. So, fashion design it was.
KS: Did Jem know you were interested in comics when making that suggestion?
RB: We bonded over our love of storytelling in general and found we loved a lot of the same media, like Studio Ghibli and Steven Universe and comics! Jem was making webcomics at the time, and I thought it was so awesome, I remember “wishing” I could do something like that with my art, and Jem’s response was basically, “Well, what’s stopping you?” and from there I started to research more seriously about comic careers and such. They’re still making that webcomic by the way — it’s called The Flying Ship, it’s absolutely amazing and free to read, so everyone should go check it out!
KS: Was working in the medium already a goal for you?
RB: I’ve wanted to work in comics since I graduated college in 2015. So, for a few years, I just worked whatever retail or food service job I could find while learning comics and improving my art. Then in 2018 I got to illustrate a 50-page webcomic issue of Ladies Book Club for CollegeHumor as my first comics job. That came as an e-mail one day with the offer, I think they found me through Twitter? But it was more than I’d ever been paid for anything art-related which felt very nice and surreal. I got to work on a team and get professional feedback for the first time, and I loved it!
KS: How did you keep that momentum going with a next step?
RB: In 2019 my partner and I pitched to Creators-For-Creators, an awesome graphic novel grant program, so graphic novels specifically were very much on my mind. We didn’t get the grant, but then months later Kiara Valdez reached out to me with the offer for Frizzy — and later, Gutless. My agent reached out to me after Frizzy was announced and that was that!
KS: Because many of our readers are aspiring creators, please talk a little about initially getting your agent. The Ladies Book Club job came about via social media, but did you already have an agent at that time?
RB: I didn’t have one at that time, but if I got that job today I absolutely would have my agent on board looking everything over. I also signed Frizzy without an agent, so my book announcement stated I was unagented and that’s how my agent reached out to me. But, creators, if you get an offer, please at least try to find an agent before signing on to do a graphic novel! The legal stuff can be really overwhelming and they’re there to help you out!
KS: Tell us about your current workspace or studio setup.
RB: I love having my studio in the corner of my living room, because it’s this huge, open space with lots of light and a fireplace, and my partner can always hang out with me while I’m working. Especially since the pandemic and spending so much time at home, I just didn’t see the point in having a separate space for creating and I haven’t looked back since. I have a desktop computer for writing, and all of my art is done on the iPad with the Sketchboard Pro and Clip Studio Paint.
KS: Do you have a set daily or nightly work routine, or does it fluctuate significantly based on what’s on your plate?
RB: I work best in the morning, so I’m usually sitting down to work by 8 or 9 and I work until about 5 or 6 depending on the day. Weekends I try to take off unless I seriously mismanage my schedule, or I have a deadline coming up. I take lots of breaks to stretch, move around, eat, and play with my dog. My partner has evenings off, so I work hard to save that time for her and for myself when I can.
KS: What about listening to music, or any other background noise, while you work?
RB: Every human brain works and processes information differently. Some really benefit from working in silence, but I personally always need something playing in the background to keep me focused. I try to be mindful about what my brain needs in the moment depending on what I’m working on, so my background noise is always changing. If I’m writing, I can’t listen to any music with words, but I like epic classical scores to inspire those intense emotions. For drawing, I’m usually listening to music or a podcast, or watching a comfort show like The Office. It tricks my eyes into looking away from the drawing tablet once in a while!
KS: You’re going to be both writer and artist on the upcoming original graphic novel, Gutless. What have you learned working as an artist for other writers that’s proven to be helpful when working as a “one-person band” on this project?
RB: It helped to learn firsthand that there’s no one way to write a comic or a graphic novel, so when I started work on writing Gutless I didn’t feel limited to any one structure or process. It also taught me that I really like written structure to start with — I don’t like to improvise with story choices too much in the drawing phase, because there are already so many visual choices to make. Having a solid, decisive story structure laid out from beginning to end feels necessary for me to be able to bring my absolute best to the visuals, so for Gutless I’m working hard to make sure the story has good bones before jumping into the actual page layouts.
KS: How did you decide on the subject of your first solo book?
RB: It started as a webcomic in 2016 — I believe? — but I was living in post-college poverty and working two day jobs so I couldn’t keep up with updating it. It always stayed in my heart, though, so when it came time to pitch something original to First Second years later in 2019, Gutless was the first thing that came to my mind, but I wasn’t sure it was “marketable” enough. I made it with just myself in mind, after all! But my awesome agent, Tamara Kawar, offered the most thoughtful feedback and encouragement so I just went for it, and I’m so glad I did. I have to shout out to my editor Kiara Valdez, too, because she’s been excited about Gutless since we started working together, and I’m so happy to have her working on this book with me.
KS: Did you find your way into the story through plot or images? Or maybe both?
RB: It was a bit of both. Gutless came into my mind when I was trying to think of what kind of story I would make just for myself. Something I could make for fun, just to teach myself comics and play around in my favorite genre: fantasy. As a trans and queer person who deals with constant feelings of alienation and isolation, I’ve always been attracted to stories dealing with identity and artificial intelligence, especially in SFF. So, I considered how a wooden knight suddenly brought to life might navigate gender and personhood and the rest of the story was born from there! Visually though, I knew I wanted to draw lots and lots of flowers, so I gave the witches plant magic and even that became integral to the story over time.
KS: With a webcomic, you’re the sole voice putting it online for an audience to find. With a published graphic novel, there are more people involved to get it out in the world — not least of which is an editor. What kind of working dynamic do you and Kiara have when it comes to adapting your work for a new format and new audience?
RB: We’re still in the early stages with Gutless, so Kiara and I are still developing our working editor/writer relationship and I honestly can’t wait to see what she brings to the story. As a webcomic, it truly had no direction. There was no real beginning or end, just three main characters and a jumble of ideas that I worked out chapter-by-chapter because I only vaguely knew the kind of story I wanted to tell. I knew that bringing more experienced people on board could only make it better with so little to start with.
So, when I approached it as a graphic novel, I kept the main characters and the world, but the biggest challenge was coming up with some thrilling stakes that would work well for the character-driven story I always wanted it to be. I felt a little unhinged writing the ending first, but I had a solid idea how I wanted to end it and worked backwards from there! I also found I had to add more characters to flesh out the world and help the main trio along on their journey. It’s grown up so much from the tiny seed of an idea it was as a webcomic, and I’m really proud of how far it’s come.
KS: Tell us about a hobby of yours totally unrelated to art or comics. Something you study, collect, practice, whatever…
RB: I spend a lot of time gaming. I’ve always found so much comfort in the immersive worlds of fantasy/action role-playing games. The amount of care and creative collaboration that goes into each game is so inspiring, it would be such a dream for me to work on some kind of visual design element for a video game some day! The Legend of Zelda franchise in particular is very near and dear to my heart. I also love to sing and play the ukulele, but only when absolutely no one is watching.
KS: What’s a comic or graphic novel by someone else that you consider the medium at its best?
RB: Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s work blows me away every time. It’s surreal and cinematic at the same time. She has a collection of short comics called Don’t Go Without Me that is particularly stunning and heart-wrenching. Another graphic novel that came out recently that really stuck with me was Squire by Sara Alfageeh and Nadia Shammas. Not only is it a fantastic work of art and a timely, beautifully crafted story, but it meant so much to me as a fellow Arab-American creator to finally see myself and my culture celebrated in a fantasy story. I also feel like I have to mention Kamome Shirahama’s manga Witch Hat Atelier — the characters are full of heart, and her surprising use of paneling and composition is so wonderful. I’m always going back to it for inspiration.
KS: To wrap up, let the readers know what you’ve got coming up the rest of 2022 and beyond…
RB: Frizzy, the graphic novel written by the amazing Claribel A. Ortega and illustrated by me is available for pre-order now, out everywhere October 18! It’s my first book and I couldn’t be prouder of the work we did as a team; it’s such a special story and I had the best time drawing it. Beyond 2022, you can look forward to my first OGN Gutless! It’s going to be long and epic, so I hope that’s enough to look forward to for now, ha!